The author is an associate professor of history and Latino studies at Northwestern University, and the author of Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland.
“Go back to Univision,” Donald Trump said this week as he booted influential Latino journalist Jorge Ramos from a press conference. Then Trump invited Ramos back — only to say that in his administration, undocumented immigrants would “be out so fast your head will spin.” The testy exchange probably just galvanized his “passionate” base, as Trump called his followers after they beat a homeless man in Boston while spouting Trump-inspired, anti-immigrant venom.
But Trump, of course, is just the ringleader of a Republican race to the right on immigration, one that involves almost the whole presidential slate minus Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Having studied immigration and the border for more than a decade, I take for granted that many of the anti-immigration proposals they’re espousing — repealing birthright citizenship, mass deportations, forcing Mexico to build and pay for a wall — make for bad policy. But they’re bad politics too: They lead to exclusion and enmity, and will alienate the Latinos whose votes they seek.
For starters, if today’s Republicans hope to tack right to win the nomination, and then shift back to the center during the general election, they’ll be foiled by attack ads and blog posts. Media saturation creates long memories. Just look at the example of Mitt Romney in 2012: His comment during a primary debate that he supported “self-deportation” dogged him throughout the general election. After Romney lost, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus vowed to improve the GOP’s standing among Latinos. But today’s Republican slates seem to not have learned the lessons of 2012.
Conservative Latinos know that they are just a traffic stop or mispronounced English word away from being called “illegals.”
Of course, they just might not care. Perhaps Republican candidates know exactly what they’re doing and don’t mind risking the Latino vote in the general election. There is some math to support this: Since the late 1970s, conservative strategists, including leaders of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, have conceded that the GOP nominee needs to capture only a third or 35 percent of the Latino vote. (Reagan and George W. Bush, who each won between 35 and 40 percent of the Latino vote in their presidential elections, are the polestars here.) And if nominees don’t win enough of the Latino vote, they might widen their margin among white voters. Even as he alienated Latinos, after all, Romney captured almost 60 percent of the white vote.
Republican candidates are also relying on the oft-cited fact that immigration does not top the list of issues Latinos say they care about most. Indeed, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, 50 percent or more of Latinos said they considered education, jobs and the economy “extremely important issues.” Only 34 percent said the same of immigration. Many Republicans insist that the figures bolster the idea that immigration and the border are merely divisive distractions used by Democrats to silo minority voters who cast their votes based on grievances and false charges of racism. Latinos, they say, are natural conservatives — Republicans who just don’t know it yet, as Reagan famously put it. Even Trump, astonishingly, maintains that he’ll win the Latino vote because Latinos know he will put them to work; this despite the recent Gallup poll result that only 14 percent of Hispanics view Trump favorably, while 65 percent view him unfavorably.
But figures suggesting that immigration isn’t all that important to Latinos are misleading. A candidate’s position on these issues can change their minds. As Trump’s adversary Ramos explained earlier this year, “the immigration issue is the most pressing symbolically and emotionally, and the stance a politician takes on this defines whether his is with us or against us.” The idea of Trump, or any one of this campaign’s immigration hardliners, winning even 30 percent of the Latino vote is a stretch.
Indeed, compared to the proposals of this year’s slate of candidates, Romney’s “self-deportation” idea seems almost compassionate. Consider some of Trump’s more inflammatory remarks. Latino and other business associates abandoned him in droves after his rapists-and-murderers rant. The reason is that bad immigration politics are bad business. Even conservative Latinos don’t want border walls or mass deportations or the end of birthright citizenship. Such measures would dehumanize U.S. residents, damage relationships with Latin American countries and diminish inter-American business opportunities that made them believers in American capitalism to begin with. Moreover, in an atmosphere of violent political rhetoric, conservative Latinos know that they, too, are just a traffic stop or mispronounced English word away from being called “illegals” or becoming victims of hate crimes like the one in Boston.
If history is a guide, between 20 and 40 percent of Latinos will vote for a Republican candidate no matter how draconian his or her immigration and border policy. To be sure, not all candidates are alike. Rubio and Bush strike a more moderate tone, although they, too, have been forced to stick with the pack while quietly asserting their differences. If one of them wins the nomination, Latino support could tick upwards of 30 percent. But before Latinos and all Americans decide which candidate to support, they should consider what kind of party provides a refuge for candidates proposing measures motivated by anger and fear rather than a vision of national inclusiveness and international friendship.
GERALDO L. CADAVA